By Cindy Atoji Keene
Jim Manning can earn upwards of $500 an hour for a private Santa visit, but he prides himself on being a higher caliber Chief Elf than those typically found in malls or department stores. Facials, personal trainers, beards costing half a grand, super-stuffed “fat suits” and multiple costumes all go into Manning’s prep work for playing Santa. In his 10 years donning the red and white suit, his jolly appearances have include tree lightings, parades, television, photo shoots, and parties; he’s arrived by helicopter, horse and buggy, fire engine, and farm cart. Manning, 37, who is family entertainer “Jungle Jim” in non-holiday months, sees his Santa Claus work as a natural extension of his birthday party appearances.
Q: If a kid asks, ‘Where’s your sleigh?” or other tough questions, how do you answer?
A: I’m pretty good at improv. I try to make my answers entertaining for the parents as well as the kids. I’ll say something like, “The reindeer are waiting for me at Logan Airport; they’re not allowed to land here because they’ll mess up your dad’s trees.” Or last year, I might have answered, “Blitzen tore her ACL.” But now that Patriot’s tight end Rob Gronkowski injured his, I don’t say this because I don’t want to appear to be insensitive.
Q: Your beard – is it real or fake?
A: I’m what the Santa industry calls a “designer-bearded Santa.” People call and want a Santa with a real beard, but there are plenty of guys out there with a real beard that’s dark or yellow or straggly. A fake beard actually looks more convincing. I have five sets of wigs, beards, and mustaches. The beards cost as much as $500 and attach in three places. I normally sport a goatee, but I’ll shave that off and keep my hair really short, then put on all the headgear. It helps that my wife – who by the way, hates being called Mrs. Claus ¬– is a hairdresser; she helps me out.
Q: How’s the Santa business this year?
A: I typically make 60-70 Santa appearances a year, including 10 visits on Christmas Eve alone. On Christmas Eve, the first appearance is at 1 and the last is at 10 p.m. I just booked visit number nine, at a big Italian family who stay up till midnight or later to celebrate the season. Two-thirds of my jobs are at such residential parties, with anywhere from three to 10 children present. I arrive early, park about a block away, and someone will either meet me outside with the presents or leave the presents at the end of the driveway. To get the kids warmed up, I’ll read the Night Before Christmas, do a little caroling, then we’ll start the photos and talking with Santa.
Q: How do you get in the spirit of the performance?
A: I do energy shots because being Santa is really demanding, but once i put on suit, I really feel the spirit of Christmas. I never drink on duty. Sometimes I’ll go to an event and someone will say, ‘Oh Santa, have a whisky,’ but I would never do that. I get frustrated with other Santas, because people will say, ‘Oh, the Santa we had last year had two whiskeys.’
Q: What sort of unusual requests have you had?
A: One kid asked me just not just for a horse ¬but a blue horse. Another five-year-old boy hopped on my lap and said with utter sincere conviction and sincerity, “I want 10 thousand dollars – cash.”
I never make promises and remain very non-committal. I’ll say, “That’s a great idea,” or “I’ll talk to the elves.”
One of the saddest experiences I had was out at a drug store in Hopkinton, where a quiet little girl didn’t say much when I asked her, “What would you like for Christmas?” Finally she said, “Bring mommy and daddy back from heaven.” Everyone froze, including her aunt. Her parents had been killed in a car accident that previous August. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I finally managed to say, “Your mommy and daddy are looking down at you from heaven. Santa is a magical elf and there are a lot of things he can do, but he can’t do everything.”
Q: You don’t have your own beard, but what about the gut – is the Santa belly real?
A: I am a big guy – 5’11 and 240 pounds – but not nearly as big as Santa. I ordered a “fat suit” from a theatrical company in Iowa. It slides up like a onesie and ties in the back. But I thought it didn’t have enough girth, so I undid the stitching and added more stuffing. I also bought seven shoulder pads for each arm and sewed them onto each side because the fat suit had no upper padding, and Santa really needs to look hefty on top as well.
Q: How did you perfect your ‘ho, ho ho?’
A: It’s developed over the years. I was a Santa in Downtown Crossing for a few years and that’s where I did a lot of my initial practicing. I studied the original version of Miracle on 34 Street; to me, Edwin Gwenn is the ultimate Santa Claus. A good chuckle should come from your belly and have timber.
Q: You’ve attended Santa Claus School?
A: It was an intensive crash course where we learned about the history of St. Nick, wig and beard maintenance, accoutrements to wear with the suit, and practicing our ‘ho, ho, ho’s’ of course. There are also marketing tips.
Q: How do you deal with germs?
A: I have 30 pairs of gloves and I keep hand sanitizer in the car. I’m also not above encouraging kids to cough into their elbow. And if a child is really very ill, I’ll position him on my lap facing away from me. I wash the gloves with bleach and have different pairs for different occasions; if I’m reading and need grips, I’ll wear white marching band gloves. If I’m outside, I have thicker wool gloves as opposed to indoor dress gloves. And if you ask if I’ve ever been peed on, the answer is ‘no.’ Not yet anyway.
Q: What’s your Christmas Day like?
A: I have no memories of Christmas Day for the past few years. I’m so tired I just sit there while my nieces and nephews try to get me to play with them. I’m completely wiped out. Being Santa can be exhausting.